Burgers, pizzas and hot dogs easily come to mind whenever we think of 'fast foods', but nothing beats Momos here, as it is the most common items served in the restaurants and fast food joints across the country; and more so in Kathmandu. Restaurants and fast food joints say that no matter what specialty cuisine they may serve, their patrons mostly prefer to order Momos be it winter or summer, and the dish easily surpass the sale of other food items in their establishments. Some restaurant owners even say that Momos cover half of their daily sales.
To see people ordering Momos for their lunch or sometimes even while dining out at restaurants about the city is pretty commonplace. And why shouldn't they – the sight of juicy, mouth watering Momos served with achar (pickle) is simply too irresistible. Little wonder that the dish has become a norm for most Nepalis eating out. To suit the taste buds of different individuals a variety of Momos are available, and most common are steamed Momos, Kothey Momos (semi fried), deep fried Momos and C-Momo (served in hot and spicy sauce with capsicum and onions). Not to leave the veggies aside, one can even have potato Momos, vegetable Momos, paneer Momos, cheese Momos, and for those with sweet tooth: Momos with chocolate fillings.
Our insatiable demand for the doughy dumplings can be easily gauzed by the number of people we see thronging at ubiquitous Momo stalls in Kathmandu, where people wait in long queues just to hungrily gulp down platefuls of steamy and hot (tat tato, as we call in Nepali) Momos. And this even while the temperature outside is well above 30 degrees.
This mania over Momo has become an interesting culinary habit of Nepali people, something they share with people from the Himalayan belt stretching from Himanchal Pradesh in North Western India along with Tibet in the North to Darjeeling, Bhutan, Sikkim, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland in the North East. The dish is also popular among Nepalese diaspora around the world.
Given our insatiable appetite for Momos, one can say that this dish comes only second to Nepal's original staple – the Dal-bhat-Tarkari combination. But although we never seem to get enough of Momos while eating out at restaurants, but in our homes its close cousin seems to have no contender– instant noodles, or 'chowchow', as we commonly call it.
Tasty tasty' Wai Wai
It all started back in the 80s when Gandaki Noodles launched Rara brand of instant noodles. But it was Chaudhary Group, one of the largest private business houses in the country having diversified interests across various sectors that created a wave in the market by launching Wai Wai (Tasty-Tasty in Thai) brand of instant noodles in collaboration with Thai Foods.
Soon Wai Wai commercials were seen in Nepal Television (NTV) - the sole limited-hour state-owned television station the country had back then - with images of sensuous model Dolly Gurung prancing away with Wai Wai chowchow in her hand streamed across living rooms of the middle-class Nepali households just becoming familiar with the concept of 'living rooms' in their houses.
Wai Wai was also one of few factory made products back then in a country just shedding its pastoral past and slowly marching towards industrialization with Russian made Janakpur Cigarette Industry and handful of distilleries and jute mills. As Wai Wai's basically meant to be served in soup form, it also made sense in this "cold ashtray" of Bhupi Sherchan's poems along with other hilly and colder parts of the country. And unlike the noodles introduced to us by the Tibetan refugees, Wai Wai being pre-cooked, flavored and fried before packaging, so anybody could prepare it instantly and without much hassle.
The crispy, tangy taste of Wai Wai was also a sure fire among the spice-loving Nepalese palate. Plus, as it could be eaten straight from the package as well, it became a hit with school going children too. It took no time for Wai Wai instant noodles to gain instant popularity in Nepal as it started to be found in stores in most of the major cities and towns including villages across the country.
Over time many other brands emerged and gained popularity in the market. More players brought in intense competition, with companies spending heavily on trade schemes and promotional advertising. This proved to be a boon for the sector as it helped expand the instant noodles market in the country. Now the popularity of noodles can be gauged by the fact that more than a dozen brand of instant noodles are available in the market with two of the big business houses of the country (Chaudhary Group and Khetan Group) already competing with each other to grab substantial share of the Rs 2 billion plus market of instant noodles.
Industry watchers say that the noodles industry has been growing at a steady rate of 15 to 20 percent from the past many years. Now the noodle market has become so sophisticated that manufacturers are bringing in new products targeting special segments of the market. Earlier, consumers had choice between chicken or masala flavored (for veggies) Wai Wai, or if they wanted to go for 'white noodle' they would go for Rara (the brand is more popular in mountainous parts of Nepal than the cities), and the choices stopped there. But now noodles solely targeting the school-going kids have sprung up:
Even Sajani Shakya, the 12-yr-old Kumari or 'Living Goddess' of Bhaktapur who caught the limelight by irking religious leaders after she made a trip to US, admits that she prefers instant noodles. With time, Wai Wai has started coming in different flavors to cater to varied tastes of the consumers such as mutton, Biriyani and chicken tikka to name a few. But Wai Wai's close competitor Mayos has gone a step ahead and has launched low-calorie/fat noodles called 'Mayos lite', meant especially for those people conscious about maintaining their healthy figures.
Though the decade-old conflict has ended in Nepal, it is clear that the noodle war is still raging on with gusto. There is an intense competition between the noodle companies to become a dominant player in the market through clever consumer schemes and heavy expenditure in advertisements to build a lasting brand image. If one noodle brand promises laptops and motorcycles in lucky coupons you get upon purchase of the product, then another brand promises refrigerators, microwaves and cars. It is a different thing, however, that these prizes never seem to fall into the hands of those it was meant for and appears to be a clever marketing strategy to increase the sales volume of their respective brands.
One noodle brand has been running a massive advertisement campaign from the past two years under the slogan 'Rum Pum, Rich & Famous", where consumers who are lucky to earn cash prizes on offer can have the privilege of flaunt their win on the television and even the product's packet.
But the noodle war looked more intense during the insurgency period when the whole country was embroiled in a senseless conflict. With the country's major industries including tourism, carpet, garment and others already in the decline and those doing well having to put up with Maoist threats and extortions, the economy was already at the rocks. Remittance money sent by Nepalis working abroad was the only thing that was keeping the economy afloat. People feared to invest money and stacked it up in Banks, making it the only sector besides media industry that in fact grew during the period.
In fact, during the insurgency time the noodle companies were one of the top advertisers in print, radio and television, and nowhere could their struggle to gain market supremacy be seen than during prime time news breaks in host of television stations. Consumers had to bear television commercials (TVC) of up to 4-5 brands of noodles in average during each advertisement breaks.
The population in Kathmandu and other towns across Nepal grew immensely during the conflict period as people started to flee the war in the countryside in waves and started settling in urban centers. This was good news for the Fast Moving Consumers Goods (FMCG)'s like noodles and biscuits, and their sales jumped. Due to their inexpensiveness and, particularly in the case of instant noodles, ease of preparation people started to consume it as snacks in the offices or schools, and also for breakfast.
Even Maoists combatants which was fighting the Nepal Army back then found it as a cheap and affordable food alternative while constantly on the move across the length and breadth of the country. Perhaps they could have rechristened 'instant noodles' as the "people's food" if the 'instant' word in it didn't sound too capitalistic.
On the other hand, the growth enjoyed by the noodle companies during the troubled times, though surprising to many, also reflected the economic recession the country was reeling under. The steady increase in the sales of popular noodles brand meant that people could no longer afford 'more expensive and healthy foods'.
Nepal and Beyond
As a breakfast food, as a Tiffin for school-going kids, a quick 4 pm snack, instant noodles has now become a "national light food" and replaced traditional food items like Chiura (beaten rice), bhatmas (fried beans) to a much extent. While it is not known how many packets of instant noodles Nepali people consumes in a year, but if one is to look at the sales record of grocery stores in your neighborhood then it can be safely concluded that Nepalis people eat substantial amount of instant noodles in their daily diet.
Noodle companies even contend that most Nepalis now view 'chowchow' as a standard lunch rather than snack like they used to do until few years back. Being lightweight and rich in carbohydrates and proteins, chowchow has become popular among trekkers and mountaineers also as the noodle companies rapidly expand their market in extreme corners of the country despite geographical difficulties.
According to industry estimates, 4 - 5 million packets of noodles are produced in Nepal every year and substantial portion of it is consumed in the country. That's not much for a country of 25 million people given that 44 billion packs of instant noodles are eaten in China, or 51 percent of the total world servings. But still the consumption is far more than any other FMCGs in Nepal besides, of course, cigarettes. Moreover, the noodle industry today employs one of the most cutting edge production technology in Nepal along with a leading market research team backed by managerial efficiency to promote it among the people.
While many brands of instant noodles has flushed the market, Wai Wai instant noodles continue to be highly popular and a market leader in its segment today. A household name in Nepal and among the Nepali speaking populace, the brand still dominate more than half of the total market share and its popularity has been sufficient to make it practically synonymous with instant noodles.
Wai Wai, being the flag ship brand of Chaudhary Group, has also propelled the private business house to strive for a South Asian prominence. Previously the brand used to be produced in Nepal and exported to India. Now its rising popularity in India has led CG Foods to open factories in India. According to reports, CG has quite an ambitious plan to expand its sales throughout India targeting 33% share of India 's 13,000 tons annual market (estimated to be worth Rs 4 billion) mostly concentrated in North-Eastern Indian states like Darjeeling in West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam.
Hence, Wai Wai has emerged as the first all-Nepali brand bracing up to give a tough fight to international noodle giant such as Maggie and Top Ramen that has already established their popular brand image in India.
It is not that other noodle companies are not exporting their products to India hoping to experience phenomenal growth Wai Wai is reaping. But being unable to meet promotional and advertisement expenses they have largely failed to get re-orders and have mostly backed away. But CG has consistently overcome that glitch also by employing effective marketing strategies. According to one another report, the company has already captured over 80% market share in Bhutan and some North-eastern states of India, and recently started making inroads in almost every state of India. Chaudhary Group has also recently started exporting to Bangladesh and claims being successfully accepted in the markets of European Union Countries like UK , Austria & Germany.
With most business houses in the country afflicted with "shopkeeper syndrome" whose mantra seems to be just "import and sell", the noodle industry led by CG has at least gone beyond the frontiers of Nepal and gained prominence in South Asia. Instead of maturing, many industries in the country are closing down in appalling regularity and those that are still standing seems to be headed for a doom with some of Nepal's leading exports tumble in the face of growing mismanagement of the industrial sector and rising international competition. All this while the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FNCCI) silently weeps.
Given this scenario, it is not hard to imagine that one day Nepal may become economically dependent on just one trade while growing more and more dependent on foreign aid. This puts our 'new Nepal' in the league of Banana republics already, so no reason to bicker over turning Nepal into a "democratic republic" or a "people's republic".
If Banana seems not a suitable word to put before a republic (because of its weird associations to body parts) then lets rename the country Federal Chowchow Republic of Nepal. I might just have to file my nomination for the Presidentship.